The Economist explains

Why Ukraine’s supply of anti-tank weapons may tail off

Many are hugely expensive

2J1BX5T A Ukrainian service member holds a next generation light anti-tank weapon (NLAW) at a position on the front line in the north Kyiv region, Ukraine March 24, 2022. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Six months have passed since the war in Ukraine began. Read our most recent coverage here.

PORTABLE ANTI-TANK weapons have proved highly effective in Ukrainian hands: since the outbreak of war six months ago, they have destroyed plenty of Russian armoured vehicles, helping to stall the advance on Kyiv, the capital. At least a dozen countries—including America, Britain and Germany—are sending them to Ukraine. America’s latest package of support, announced on August 8th, includes both top-of-the-range Javelin launchers and AT4s, a simpler model. A single shot from the former costs about 100 times as much as one fired from the latter. As Western countries deplete their most high-tech stockpiles, they may be tempted to supply less effective but cheaper models. What impact might that have on the war?

Today’s anti-tank weapons are successors of the Bazooka, an American portable rocket launcher introduced during the second world war. It was so effective against armoured vehicles that the light tanks of the day were rendered obsolete. Modern launchers have become even more fearsome. Javelins, the most high-tech model, have infra-red seekers which can lock onto and pursue a moving target up to 2.5km away. Troops can “fire-and-forget”, meaning they can take cover quickly after launching. The 8.4kg warhead dives on its target, allowing it to penetrate even thick armour. A single missile costs $198,000—as much as a Ferrari. Manufacturers say this reflects the cost of complex electronics; critics say Javelins have an excessively expensive design.

Cheaper models can do plenty of damage at a fraction of the cost. Britain’s Next Generation Light Anti-tank Weapon (NLAW) costs roughly $33,000 per shot. It has telescopic sights and night vision, and is capable of hitting moving targets. It is easier to move and to fire from confined spaces than the Javelin. But it cannot be guided after launch and its range is less than 1km. Still, NLAWs have destroyed a range of Russian armoured vehicles including some of the best tanks.

The cheapest anti-tank weapons cannot come close to the Javelin, but still play an important role in the war. The Swedish-designed AT4 costs around $2,000 per launch. Its effective range is 300 metres but there is little chance of hitting a moving target that far away. It cannot penetrate the frontal armour of modern tanks but can easily destroy other armoured vehicles, such as personnel carriers and self-propelled guns. The Soviet-designed RPG-7 costs only a few hundred dollars, and has a similar range. Some American-made clones of the design are in use in Ukraine.

As the war grinds on, Ukraine’s allies may be hard pressed to supply sophisticated anti-tank weapons, such as Javelins, at the current rate. America had sent perhaps 8,500 Javelins by mid-August, but has been used to procuring only about 800 a year at most. It does not disclose its stockpiles, but The Economist’s analysis suggests that America’s army has bought about 34,500 in total over the years. Production cannot be ramped up quickly and there is competition for the limited supply: other European countries are clamouring to increase their arsenals. That means AT4s and other simpler anti-tank weapons may plug an ever-growing gap in Ukraine.

Luckily, thanks to the Javelin and other weapons, Russia has lost many of its most modern tanks already. Even less-advanced launchers are capable of disabling the older models it will be forced to rely on. And though anti-tank weapons have played a decisive role in Ukraine’s defence, they are less useful in offence. If Ukrainian forces hope to retake lost territory, they will need more long-range artillery to clear the way for troops. Ukraine’s supply of expensive anti-tank weapons may drop off, but they have already done much of their job.

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